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Digital Collections : Claude C. Matlack Collection

The Story of James Anderson Burns and Oneida Baptist Institute

James Anderson Burns (1865-1945), the youngest son of a Primitive Baptist preacher, grew up in the hills of West Virginia where families produced their own food, clothes and housing. At fourteen, in addition to working the family farm, he hunted and sold ginseng roots to buy books so he could attend the first school in a nearby settlement. He quickly mastered the school's curriculum and, eager to see and learn more, decided to visit his father's homestead in Clay County, Kentucky.

To a teenage boy Kentucky sounded like a land of mystery and opportunity, but to his father it was a land of danger -- particularly for a teenage boy. Hugh Burns had moved to protect his family from the Baker-Howard feud that put too many young men in graves. He tried to talk James out of going, but had to settle for a promise that he would wait at least a year before making the trip. And, even though Hugh died suddenly only days later, his son kept his word.

James Burns liked the brave, hard-working and intelligent though uneducated people he met in Clay County. But just as his father had feared, he was pulled into the violence of defending family honor. Big, strong and a skilled gunman, James survived four years of feuding despite numerous close calls. One morning after being left for dead among some weeds, he regained consciousness and retreated alone to a mountaintop where, according to his autobiography, he felt the Holy Spirit replaced his "heart of vengeance" with "a heart of mercy" (Burns, p. 43).

He immediately stopped fighting and returned to West Virginia. With the help of the Baptist Education Society he planned to study first at Denison University and then at a theological school. But after only seven months in the cooperative and peaceful academic atmosphere of Denison's Ohio campus, he felt compelled to create a similar opportunity for his people in Kentucky. If mountain children were educated in an environment of love and fellowship, he firmly believed, they would be less susceptible to the bitter hatred that had consumed their ancestors. So without telling anyone, Burns began working his way back to Clay County.

Arriving in 1892, he traveled from town to town, preaching on weekends, teaching on weekdays, and occasionally running subscription schools for several months at a time. There were fewer fights among those he taught, but the results seemed transient. He yearned to gather young children into a permanent establishment where peace and brotherly love would be the foundation of every lesson.

James Burns

After marrying Martha Sizemore in 1897, Burns taught at Berea College where he met H. L. McMurray, a Baptist preacher from Kansas. McMurray shared Burns' dream of building a Christian school for mountain children and together they planned to make it a reality. They selected a site in Oneida on a small hill where three small streams converge to form the South Fork of the Kentucky River, and in the summer of 1899 they spent two weeks on muleback inviting feuding mountaineers to a meeting.

About twenty-five armed men from each clan came to the meeting, assembling on opposite sides of an old mill shed without speaking to those across the room. Burns' appeal was direct and sincere. He said he believed everyone really wanted the killing to stop, but it continued because they had consciously and unconsciously taught their children to hate each other for more than a hundred years. He proposed a new plan for peace. He asked the men to unite in building a school where their children would be taught "the story of our Savior's love every hour" and would learn to love, and not despise, each other (Burns, p. 63). In short, he began to share his and McMurray's vision for a school. Before Burns could finish his plea, two recognized feud leaders, Lee Combs and Frank "Big Boozer" Burns, crossed to the center of the room and shook hands on the deal.

A board of trustees was formed with members from both clans. More than half were illiterate, signing their names with "X's". The ten acre site in Oneida was donated by Martha "Granny" Hogg. Men from both sides contributed money, materials, and hard work and Frank Burns hauled boards torn from the loft of his log cabin to Oneida in freezing weather so they would have enough lumber to finish McMurray Hall in time to open on January 1, 1900.

There were initially about 100 students in grades one through eight and three instructors: Burns, McMurray, and C.A. Dugger. There were only two homes in Oneida and both took in as many students as they could. Other children lived with families several miles away and walked to classes. Few could afford to pay the $1 per month tuition, but they worked and offered what they could. One paid with a sheepskin that was used to make erasers. Another gave the school his only possession, a bull. There was little money for the instructors and they frequently went long stretches without any salary, but they survived and fed the students by raising a garden, fishing at night, and accepting donations.

Despite McMurray's tremendous commitment to the cause, he left the faculty at the end of the first year to care for his growing family. Dugger resigned the following year for similar reasons. Fortunately other native mountaineers came to help, and they soon found themselves studying at night to stay ahead of the advanced students who wanted classes that were beyond the education of the instructors.

In 1902, McMurray Hall was converted to a boys' dormitory and a brick classroom building was added, thanks to a $5000 donation from Dr. and Mrs. J. B. Marvin of Louisville. Dr. Marvin was a trustee and the person who introduced photographer Claude C. Matlack to the institute in 1903. That same summer John Henry Walker, a graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky, surprised everyone when he came to Oneida and volunteered to teach a year without pay because Burns had encouraged Walker's father to send him to college. Walker stayed beyond that year, was named principal in 1905, and married "Granny" Hogg's daughter, Kate Coldiron.

As John Henry Walker assumed more responsibility for the school's curriculum and staff, Burns spent more time raising money in Louisville, New York, and other cities. Traveling so much was difficult because, at the time, he had a son and three daughters plus responsibility for six nieces and nephews whose parents were deceased. But Burns' earnest dedication, persuasive speaking ability, and tireless persistence were rewarded with donations that enabled the institute to survive and grow. Carnahan Hall, a girls' dorm, opened in 1905. A farm that provided both sustenance and instruction for the students was purchased in 1910 with a generous gift from the wife of a New York financier, and in 1911 a check from another New York woman was used to build Anderson Hall.

In 1908, Oneida Baptist Institute's first graduating class consisted of five young men: W. S. Burns, C. Walter Craft, Perry Davidson, Matt Hensley, and Paul Hounchell. Their stories were typical of other students. Feud fights injured Perry Davidson's father and killed two of his uncles, and although Perry was crippled and had no coat, in January 1900 he walked over twenty miles to enroll at Oneida. Matt Hensley arrived at Oneida that same January without a coat, or even a sweater. All five went on to college, and several returned to work at the institute.


The class of 1913 included seven female students. Two, Della and Esther Davidson, lost their father and brother in the feud. Their classmate Edith Cress traveled twenty-five miles alone in the mountains when she was only twelve to ask Professor Burns if she could work for an education because her parents were dead and her grandmother was old and poor. She graduated from Georgetown College four years later.

In 1915, a feud incident interrupted the institute's commencement activities. Charlie Roberts shot the mule George Baker was riding and it stumbled onto the campus and died. Fortunately, Burns spoke with the men and the dispute did not escalate into a major fight. On Commencement Day of the following year, Charlie Roberts was baptized by Reverend Burns.

That Commencement Day in 1916 was evidently one of the last that photographer Claude Matlack spent in Oneida. He was living in Florida then and most of his Kentucky photographs appear to have been taken between 1903 and the summer of 1916. Because Matlack's visits were periodic, his photographs do not present a full history of the institute during those years, but they do capture many of the people, places and events that made the founding of Oneida Baptist Institute an important milestone in the history of Clay County, Kentucky.


Burns, James Anderson. The Crucible: A Tale of the Kentucky Feuds. Oneida, Kentucky: The Oneida Institute, 1928.

"'Commercialism' in the Mountains." The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, June 15, 1913.

Hough, Emerson. "Burns of the Mountains." The American Magazine, December, 1912.

"Letting Light into Kentucky Mountains." The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, June 8, 1913.

The Oneida Mountaineer, Oneida, Kentucky, May 15, 1916.

The Oneida Mountaineer, Oneida, Kentucky, Vol. 61 No. 2, October, 1981.

Richardson, Darrell C. Mountain Rising. Oneida, Kentucky: Oneida Mountaineer Press, 1986.

Thomas, Samuel W. Dawn Comes to the Mountains. Louisville, Ky.: George Rogers Clark Press, 1981.

Thomas, Samuel W. "The Oneida Albums: Photography, Oral Tradition, and the Appalachian Experience." The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 80, no. 4 (Autumn, 1982): 432-443.

White, Ann McNielly. "A Miracle of the Mountains." The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, March 2, 1913.

Class of 1913
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